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Roberts, Michele (Brigitte) 1949-

ROBERTS, Michele (Brigitte) 1949-

PERSONAL: Born May 20, 1949, in Bushey, Hertfordshire, England; daughter of Reginald George (a businessman) and Monique Pauline Joseph (a teacher; maiden name, Caulle) Roberts; married Jim Latter (an artist). Education: Oxford University, B.A. (with honors), 1970; University of London Library Associate, 1972. Politics: "Socialist-feminist." Religion: "Unconventional." Hobbies and other interests: Cooking and eating, painting, mountain walking, dancing, swimming, traveling.

ADDRESSES: Home—London, England, and Mayenne, France. Agent—Caroline Dawnay, A.D. Peters, 10 Buckingham St., London WC2, England. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Writer. Has worked as a librarian, cook, teacher, cleaner, pregnancy counselor, researcher, book reviewer, and broadcaster; Nottingham Trent University, visiting fellow, 1995-1996, and visiting professor, 1996—. Writer-in-residence, Lambeth Borough, London, England, 1981-82; writer-in-residence, Bromley Borough, London, 1983-84; cofounder, Feminist Writers Group.

MEMBER: Writers Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Gay News Literary Award, 1978, for A Piece of the Night; Arts Council grant, 1978; Booker Prize shortlist, 1992, and W. H. Smith Literary Award, 1993, both for Daughters of the House.

WRITINGS:

POETRY

(Editor, with Michelene Wandor) Cutlasses and Earrings, Playbooks (London, England), 1977.

Licking the Bed Clean, [London], 1978.

Smile, Smile, Smile, Smile, [London], 1980.

(With Judith Karantris and Michelene Wandor) Touch Papers, Allison & Busby (London, England), 1982.

The Mirror of the Mother: Selected Poems, 1975-1985, Methuen (London, England), 1985.

All the Selves I Was: New and Selected Poems, Virago (London, England), 1995.

NOVELS

A Piece of the Night, Women's Press (London, England), 1978.

The Visitation, Women's Press (London, England), 1983.

The Wild Girl, Methuen (London, England), 1984.

The Book of Mrs. Noah, Methuen (London, England), 1987.

In the Red Kitchen, Methuen (London, England), 1990.

Psyche and the Hurricane, Methuen, 1991.

Daughters of the House, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

During Mother's Absence, Virago (London, England), 1993.

Flesh and Blood, Virago (London, England), 1994.

Impossible Saints, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.

Fair Exchange, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.

The Looking Glass, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.

SHORT STORIES

(With Alison Fell and others) Tales I Tell My Mother, Journeyman Press (London, England), 1978.

(With others) More Tales I Tell My Mother, Journeyman Press (London, England), 1987.

Playing Sardines, Virago (London, England), 2001.

NONFICTION

(Editor, with Sara Dunn and Blake Morrison) Mind Readings: Writers' Journeys through Mental States, Minerva (London, England), 1996.

Food, Sex and God: On Inspiration and Writing, Virago (London, England), 1998.

Contributor of nonfiction to City Limits and of poems to periodicals. Poetry editor, Spare Rib, 1975-77, and City Limits, 1981-83.

SIDELIGHTS: Michele Roberts has received much acclaim in some circles for her fictional evocations of feminist themes. Born in England of a French Catholic mother and a British father, Roberts grew up speaking both languages and spending time in both countries. As a child, Roberts strongly identified with her mother's faith. She attended a convent school, and throughout her teenage years she wanted to be a nun. "She perceived the convent as a safe haven from a world in which women had no freedom of choice and had to submit to conflicting images of femininity," Genevieve Brassard explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

However, Roberts decided to attend college before entering the convent. While at Somerville College, Oxford, Roberts discovered feminism. After graduation, she moved to London, joined a Marxist commune "in which rooms, possessions, and sexual partners were liberally shared," as Brassard described it, and abandoned her former commitment to Catholicism as petitbourgeois spirituality. After a brief period of time working in Thailand, Roberts returned to London and became active as a feminist and as a writer.

Roberts writes of strong female characters who rebel against a male-dominated society. She sometimes employs Christian religious symbolism, as in the novels The Wild Girl, about the life of Mary Magdalene, and The Book of Mrs. Noah, in which Mrs. Noah and five other women journey in a metaphorical ark through history to examine the condition of women throughout the ages.

Roberts's first novel, A Piece of the Night, tells of a woman's journey to self-realization—from convent schoolgirl to wife and mother to feminist and lesbian. Writing in the New Statesman, Valentine Cunningham described the novel as "a runaway chaos of inchoate bits, an incoherence that slumps well short of the better novel it might with more toil have become." "Much of A Piece of the Night," according to Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, "gives the same impression of a book written under the stern eye of a women's workshop group, and not much interested in winning the hearts of those outside the charmed circle."

In The Wild Girl, Roberts writes of biblical figure Mary Magdalene and her life as a prostitute and as a follower of Christ. Because of its frank, fictionalized account of Mary Magdalene's life, The Wild Girl received harsh criticism. "A few people," according to Tracy Clark in Feminist Writers, "went so far as to seek formal accusation of Roberts for blasphemy." A reviewer for Time Out described this work as "a powerful attack on the law of the Father and a timely reminder that old myths do not just fade away." Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Emma Fisher found that "Roberts is intelligent and passionate; by her rich use of symbols and metaphor she transforms feminist cliche into something alive and moving." Kate Full-brook in British Book News admitted that "the sentiments that animate this novel are fine, even noble. But the fiction itself never comes alive. Mary Magdalene remains nothing but a committed feminist of the 1980s; Jesus becomes nothing but a simple archetype for the non-sexist male."

Religious concerns also figure in The Visitation, the story of Helen, who contacts female archetypal figures in her dreams. Roberts, wrote Laura Marcus in the Times Literary Supplement, blurs "the distinctions between reality and fantasy in a prose which is full, resonant and at times over-charged." Tracy Clark found that Roberts employs "lush physical description and enchanting mental imagery. Every once in a while, she also skillfully flashes back to Helen's younger days in order to give her readers a fuller perspective on the adult Helen's attitude toward conventional religion in general, and the Catholic church of her youth, specifically."

The Book of Mrs. Noah is, according to Helen Birch in the New Statesman, "Roberts' most ambitious and carefully conceived novel to date." Mrs. Noah, a librarian, imagines an ark filled with disenfranchised women from all periods in history, all of them wishing to write the story of womankind. "The ark becomes," Birch wrote, "Protean, a womb, the mother's body, containing the history and dreams of all the women." Calling the ark of the novel a "rather self-condoning time-capsule" carrying a load of "bourgeois and hyper-literate" women "aloof from the problems of working-class women," Valentine Cunningham found the novel to be "familiar stuff to followers of feminist theory." "The trouble," wrote Jennifer McKay in the Listener, "is that as a novel of ideas Mrs. Noah's ideas are not especially novel and they form too heavy a load for the fragile narrative."

Daughters of the House concerns Therese, a woman who is returning to her family after living for many years in a convent. "As is typical in Roberts's work," Clark wrote, "the novel is full of spiritual imagery: the convent, imagined concepts of heaven, and a favorite religious statue. Also present are numerous detailed physical descriptions: Therese's feeling too naked in street clothes because she is used to her thick, brown dress, for instance. This combination of highly styled description, heavy symbolism, and riveting plot was very well-received by critics." Daughters of the House was nominated for England's Booker Prize.

Religious themes also appear in Impossible Saints, a novel about ten people who would be saints, including Josephine, a nun who tries to seduce her father, fails, enters a convent, and successfully seduces a priest, yet still becomes a saint. As Jason Cowley of New Statesman told it, the writing of "Impossible Saints was her final attempt 'to exorcise' what Catholicism had done to her as a child." As Roberts explained in an interview with January Magazine's Linda Richards, "Because . . . the body is very scorned in Catholicism—particularly the female body—I wanted to rescue the body and cherish it and love it and touch it and smell it and make it into language." Roberts's women, who give into the pleasures of the body yet still become saints, show us "canonization as it might have been if the church were overseen by a matriarchy that celebrated human energy, weakness and desire," as a Publishers Weekly reviewer described it.

In The Looking Glass, the story of an early twentieth-century French poet (partially inspired by Mallarme) and the four women who love him, Roberts again returns to her French and her feminist roots. The book received mixed reviews; Library Journal critic Rebecca Stuhr called the latter portions of the book "didactic and plodding," while Booklist reviewer Carol Haggas praised Roberts's "powerful prose and poetic imagery." Roberts was inspired to write a story set in France after her mother was forced to sell the cottage where they had spent summers when Roberts was a child. "My theory is that inspiration is born of loss," she explained to Richards. "I felt I proved that with this novel. It just began, 'It is the sea I miss most,' and that was my truth. And then I found that the voice talking wasn't my voice.... That's the interesting thing when you write in the first person....You've been taken over and possessed by somebody else and you write to find out who it is."

Roberts told CA: "My writing generally is fueled by the fact that I am a woman. I need to write in order to break through the silence imposed on women in this culture. The love of friends is central to my life."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 48, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Kenyon, Olga, Women Writers Talk, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1990.

Moseley, Merritt, editor, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 231: British Novelists since 1960, fourth series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July, 2001, Carol Haggas, review of The Looking Glass, p. 1983.

Books Magazine, spring, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 22.

British Book News, January, 1985, pp. 49-50; April, 1986, p. 246.

Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. B8.

Globe and Mail, July 10, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. D12.

Journal of Gender Studies, March, 1999, Susan Rowland, "Michele Roberts's Virgins: Contesting Gender in Fictions, Re-Writing Jungian Theory and Christian Myth," pp. 35-42.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, pp. 521.

Library Journal, March 1, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. 129; June 1, 2001, Rebecca Stuhr, review of The Looking Glass, p. 218.

Listener, September 10, 1987, p. 23.

London Review of Books, February 16, 1984; October 2, 1997, review of Impossible Saints, p. 34.

New Statesman, November 3, 1978, p. 590; April 22, 1983, pp. 27-28; October 5, 1984, p. 30; May 22, 1987, pp. 27-28; May 23, 1997, Jason Cowley, review of Impossible Saints, p. 49; July 4, 1997, Stephen Brasher, interview with Michele Roberts, p. 21; May 22, 2000, "Quite Contrary," p. 55; June 18, 2001, Patricia Duncker, "Cookery Lessons," p. 58.

New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1998, David Guy, review of Impossible Saints, p. 24; October 10, 1999, review of Impossible Saints, p. 36; July 22, 2001, Catherine Lockerbie, "A Dangerous Muse."

Observer (London), March 9, 1986, p. 27; May 24, 1987, p. 25; January 17, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 23.

People Weekly, August 20, 2001, review of The Looking Glass, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1998, review of Impossible Saints, p. 49.

Punch, November 12, 1986, pp. 78, 80.

Spectator, November 4, 1978; January 16, 1999, Andrew Barrow, review of Fair Exchange, p. 30.

Time Out, December, 1984.

Times Educational Supplement, August 28, 1998, review of Food, Sex and God: On Inspiration and Writing, p. 23.

Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1978, p. 1404; October 26, 1984, p. 1224; September 27, 1985, p. 1070; July 10, 1987, p. 748; July 24, 1987, p. 801; April 25, 1997, review of Impossible Saints, p. 24; October 16, 1998, review of Food, Sex and God, p. 32; January 15, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 21.

Woman's Journal, January, 1999, review of Fair Exchange, p. 14.

ONLINE

January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (December, 2000), Linda Richards, "January Talks to Michele Roberts."

Trace Online Writing Center Web site,http://www.trace.tu.ac.uk/ (September 30, 2001), "Michele Roberts, Novelist and Poet."*

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